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December 2012

Successful Dieters Learn It Before They Lose It

When it comes to trying to lose weight, most people take an all-or-nothing approach—as soon as they “cheat” or deviate from the program, they abandon their efforts altogether. But a new study offers a completely different approach—one that may, at first, seem counterintuitive—that might lead to much better results.


What do you think is the most important “skill” a successful dieter needs to be able to keep the weight off long-term? Do you think helping clients learn these skills prior to losing weight may help their chances for success? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Researchers at the Stanford Prevention Research Center recruited 267 overweight/obese women and divided them into two groups. The women in the control group immediately took part in a 20-week behavioral weight-loss program that encouraged greater intake of vegetables and fruit, increased physical activity and the use of proven dieting strategies, such as keeping daily food records. These women also attended weekly 90-minute sessions with a group facilitator to learn problem-solving skills aimed at losing weight. During the final eight weeks of the program, they applied these problem-solving skills to learn weight-maintenance skills.

The second group of women, however, spent the first eight weeks of their program learning what the researchers called “stability skills.” Lead research Michaela Kiernan, Ph.D., recognizing that weight maintenance may require a different set of skills and behaviors than those used for losing weight, developed a curriculum of skills and techniques that the women learned prior to losing any weight. These included:

  • Identifying low-fat or low-calorie foods that taste as good as high-fat/high-calorie options to avoid feelings of deprivation
  • Occasionally eating and savoring small amounts of favorite high-fat/high-calorie foods
  • Weighing daily to see how body weight naturally fluctuates from day to day
  • Identifying a personalized weight-fluctuation range of about 5 pounds to account for common disruptions, such as water gain and vacations
  • Strategically losing a few pounds before a known disruptions (such as a vacation) to minimize its effects
  • Eating a little more when reaching the lower limit of the personalized 5-pound range

At the end of the eight-week “education” phase, the women embarked on the same 20-week weight-loss program followed by the women in the control group.

After both groups completed their 28-week programs, researchers found that both groups lost similar amounts of weight—about 17 pounds, which was approximately 9 percent of their initial body weight. At the conclusion of the program, both groups of women were left on their own for one year.

After one year, the women from both groups returned to be weighed. The women in the control group regained about 7 pounds, while the women in the maintenance-first group regained just 3 pounds. Furthermore, 33 percent of the women in the maintenance-first group displayed what the researchers describe as a favorable pattern: These women lost at least 5 percent of their body weight, but didn’t regain more than 5 pounds over the course of the year.

So, could learning weight-maintenance skills actually help dieters keep weight off over the long-term? Yes, says Kiernan. “This approach helps people learn how to make small, quick adjustments that can help them maintain their weight without requiring a lot of effort.” In other words, instead of blindly following a program to the letter, only to return to the habits that led to being overweight in the first place, people who learn healthy lifestyle habits before losing weight are able to apply what they’ve learned to their real lives. 

The findings of this study, which were published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, are particularly significant for health coaches and other fitness professionals who are trying to help their clients lose weight—and maintain that weight loss over the long term. Perhaps, as Kiernan notes, it is worth spending the extra time prior to initiating the weight-loss program to help clients develop the necessary “stability” skills and habits that will make it much easier for them to keep the weight off after they have lost it. 

Kiernan hopes to continue testing this approach for longer periods and with more diverse populations, including men.

Kiernan, M. et al. (2012). Promoting healthy weight with “stability skills first”: A randomized trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/a0030544


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